The following comes out of a conversation I had with Timothy Morton on his Facebook wall, all in regard to the recent and unexpected passing of the great guitarist Allan Holdsworth. Here, I draw parallels between him, John McLaughlin, and John Coltrane. I’ve edited this for a bit of clarity.
Holdsworth, like McLaughlin, could easily take arpeggios and scales and mix between them. McLaughlin however was more staccato, while Holdsworth was more legato – even when playing 64th notes at some insane tempo. I think this had to do with *how* he played guitar, which brings me to something else that is critical to Holdsworth’s aesthetic, and this links him (on two levels) to Coltrane – and that is his technique and tone. His technique is fascinating. I’ve watched a pile of videos of him playing, and he had a habit of plucking the string closer to the neck. This decreases a certain set of overtones and frequencies, giving him a characteristic TONE. And that is one of the things I admired most about his playing. His tone was flawless. He always had this steady, flowing, warm tone to his guitar – it was readily identifiable. Honestly, that’s one of the reasons I don’t much care for his middle period work playing a Synthaxe. It’s a synthesizer, and it sounds like… a synth. Frankly his synth programming chops were good, but not great. In anycase he gradually went back to electric guitar and his fabulousity continued and grew.
But this is where there is a flow between him and Coltrane. They both had perfect tone and flow. Coltrane had an unmistakable tone and incredible flow, and like Coltrane (which brings me back to a counter point to McLaughlin) Holdsworth would take his incredible tone and timbre and bring it into the flow, and their flows were similar: where melody would work its way through patterns of scales and arpeggios, and have them operate in a very extended way through a variety of different modes. So as you follow the melody, it floats through a chord sequence, which they touch on by pulling in bits of arpeggio based off the chord, and bounce off a scale based in that chord. Both he and Coltrane would then shift through a variety of modes. What makes it stunning is how effortless both he and Coltrane make it sound – the warmth and tone do that – and then do it all at some crazy relativistic velocity. In terms of speed, this can be contrasted with McLaughlin. McLaughlin’s approach in the 70s (and continuing to this day, although although since the 90s, McLaughlin’s been happy to “punch holes” in the sound – his work with Miles Davis finally sank in, perhaps?) was more like an unrelenting machine gun or a firehose. He plucked the strings closer to the bridge – usually between the two pickups, and often closer to the bridge pickup. There, the string is tighter, and thus more “brittle” or “tighter” sounding when plucked. Also, McLaughlin tended to pluck more, which, combined with his hand position relative to the bridge, gave the staccato mandolin type sound and approach that is so awesome and characteristic of McLaughlin’s playing. Holdsworth’s plucking was often over the neck pick up or between the neck pickup and the neck. He was less concerned about plucking each note, and would let his left hand fluidly travel over the neck. Plucking close to the neck gave him that crazy warm tone, and his fluid touch and fretwork gave him that flow. I also got the impression he would rarely use the bridge pick up alone – he usually ran with the neck pick up or, if he needed more treble, both neck and bridge pick ups. This also gave a great deal of warmth to his sound.
Seventy is not that old, especially in this day and age. Holdsworth was brilliant and he shall be missed.
On a personal note, I knew of and listened to Holdsworth – mostly his work with Gong and UK. I even saw UK with Holdsworth playing in 1978 in Morristown NJ. I was way impressed by his playing. Then I lost track of him. I heard one of his records in the 80s on Synthaxe and was not impressed. When I started hanging out with Timothy Morton, he recommended his solo works and gave me some titles to check out. I did and “discovered” his genius all over again. So I have to thank Timothy for that!
Notes toward another post:
Music is only really alive when people play it. Recorded music is a kind of material hauntological experience. We get to hear ghosts. Not all ghosts are scary. Some are warm and friendly…